In 2015, as multiple states enacted laws permitting discrimination against gays and lesbians, Apple CEO Tim Cook took to The Washington Post to decry the trend. “Discrimination, in all its forms, is bad for business,” he proclaimed. Salesforce canceled its events in Indiana after the state passed its religious freedom law.
Since then, tech companies have denounced anti-LGBTQ legislation, pledged support to Black Lives Matter, and called out restrictions on voting rights. But as states move to restrict abortion and the Supreme Court considers overturning Roe v. Wade, Apple and other big tech companies have been noticeably quieter. The contrast is most pointed in Texas, which in September implemented a law effectively banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, just as tech firms were flocking to the state.
It’s not entirely clear why companies that spoke out on other issues have been silent on abortion. Abortion is a deeply moral issue for many, but so are LGBTQ rights. Until recently, though, the constitutional right to an abortion has seemed safe. Companies have been slow to acknowledge the threat to Roe, and employees, an important source of pressure on LGBTQ issues, are only just beginning to mobilize around the issue in significant numbers.
“It wasn't an overnight phenomenon that corporations began to speak out about LGBTQ equality,” says Sonja Spoo, director of reproductive rights campaigns at the women’s advocacy group UltraViolet. “That was years and years of organizing at the shareholder level, at the consumer level, and among employees.”
Anthony Johndrow, who advises businesses, including tech firms, on their social issue positioning, says companies were “caught flat footed” by the threats to abortion rights. Many hoped the courts would resolve the issue so they wouldn’t have to weigh in. “Now they're kind of scrambling.”
As some advocates worry that Saturday’s 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade will be its last, pressure is building on companies to help protect abortion rights, both from advocacy groups and workers themselves.
Tech companies decamping from Silicon Valley for the less regulated, lightly taxed pastures of Texas are confronting a political climate out of step with much of their progressive-leaning workforce. Between January 2018 and June 2021, at least 113 California companies relocated to Texas, according to Stanford researchers, including Oracle and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, with the pace accelerating in 2021; Tesla joined the exodus last fall. Apple plans to open a $1 billion campus in Austin this year, and just last week, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, said it would lease half of Austin’s tallest building. During the same period, Texas has passed laws restricting reproductive care, voting, and transgender rights, and Governor Greg Abbott has blocked Covid-19 vaccine and mask mandates. Employee resistance has been muted while they’ve been allowed to work remotely, but that could change if Covid wanes.
Some companies have spoken out and taken action. In 2019, after several states passed laws restricting abortion access, more than 180 CEOs signed an open letter titled “Don’t Ban Equality.” Published in a full-page New York Times ad, it called anti-reproductive-freedom laws bad for business, harming companies’ diversity and inclusivity initiatives and their ability to recruit top talent. A second letter titled “Don’t Ban Equality in Texas” signed by more than 80 companies—including Netflix and Yelp—ran last fall on the heels of the Texas law. The online dating company Bumble signed the letter and also set up a fund for women seeking abortion care outside of Texas. So did Lyft, which pledged to pay drivers’ legal fees if they were sued for transporting passengers to abortion clinics.
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Most companies that signed the letters were midsize tech and consumer brands trying to attract younger customers and workers, says Jen Stark, senior director of corporate strategy at Tara Health Foundation, which engages the private sector on reproductive rights and helped organize the letters. The largest tech companies—Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta, Microsoft—stayed mum. “Notably silent,” Stark says.
WIRED contacted 16 tech companies with sizable Texas workforces about the law and its impact on workers. Alphabet, Amazon, Cisco, Dell, Dropbox, eBay, Indeed, Meta, Oracle, PayPal, Samsung, SpaceX, and Tesla did not respond. Intel and Microsoft declined to comment. HP Enterprise has not taken a position on the law, but the company said, “We encourage our team members to make their voices heard through advocacy and at the ballot box.” The company said its medical plans cover out-of-state medical care, including abortion.
“We're not asking companies to weigh in on when life begins,” Stark says. “We're simply asking for companies to understand abortion as a workforce issue that impacts worker well-being and the achievement of an individual's full potential, and see its connection to equity issues around gender and race.” Tara Health asks companies to stop donating to anti-choice politicians and to review their benefits to mitigate the impact of abortion restrictions on their workforces.
Although the majority of Americans think abortion should be legal, a sizable minority believes the opposite. According to Pew Research, 39 percent of Americans think abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, including 37 percent of women. That’s a large group, including customers, shareholders, and employees “who are going to get really, really angry with you for taking a position,” says Paul Argenti, a Dartmouth corporate communications professor who wrote an article titled “When Should Your Company Speak Up About A Social Issue?”
But as the spate of LGBTQ corporate activism demonstrated, companies do sometimes speak up, even when it makes people mad. A 2020 George Washington University study of Fortune 500 companies proposed one reason: pressure from employee resource groups. The researchers found that in highly educated workforces, LGBTQ employees persuaded companies to take stances on their rights, even when it may have been costly to business.
Years ago, companies were reluctant to speak out on LGBTQ issues, says Shelley Alpern, director of corporate engagement for the investment firm Rhia Ventures, which submits shareholder resolutions supporting reproductive rights. “Part of what got them to move away from that taboo is that their employees started to speak up through LGBTQ affinity groups,” she says. “That made a huge difference because I think corporate managers realized this was not an abstract question. This has a real impact on employees.”
Employee mobilization around abortion rights has yet to reach this level. Johndrow, the reputation adviser, says his clients have not mentioned workplace organizing around the issue. “To my knowledge, and I work with a fair number of big companies, there were no groups like that,” he says. “I’m sure they’re forming now.”
They are, says Deena Fidas, managing director of the LGBTQ workplace equality nonprofit Out and Equal. Fidas is trying to apply the lessons of LGBTQ workplace organizing to reproductive health. LGBTQ pressure campaigns were decades in the making, she says, starting at a time when these workers lacked legal protections against employment discrimination. Now, Fidas works with Tara Health and other organizations to convene women’s employee resource groups and help them advocate for access to reproductive care. She says employees are starting to raise the issue as one where their employers should weigh in. “Change is definitely afoot.”
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Several factors complicate the issue. For one, women’s groups aren’t monolithic, with many opposing abortion in many or all cases. Even as more women share their stories, a stigma lingers, says Erika Seth Davies, Rhia Ventures’s CEO. “There’s been a hesitancy to talk about this very private health care decision.” Also, reproductive rights are just one of many issues competing for working women’s attention, particularly during the pandemic. “Women’s ERGs have been stretched extraordinarily thin and are stretched even more thin now,” says Stark.
Stanford Business School political economy professor Neil Malhotra has done research showing that employees are attracted to companies that share their values. If businesses perceive that an issue matters to high-skilled employees, he says, they may be more likely to speak up. But most high-skilled tech employees are men, and these high-skilled tech workers have greater access to health care and fewer unplanned pregnancies, so restrictions on abortion may be less salient. “With a highly educated, high-income employee base, there could be theoretical reasons that they would care less about abortion than some other social issues,” Malhotra says.
On September 16, Apple sent out an internal memo reminding employees that its insurance covered comprehensive abortion services and out-of-state travel, as first reported by TechCrunch. For some employees, however, this wasn’t enough. A lively discussion erupted on Slack. “There were some Texans in that chat who were planning to quit their job and leave the state” unless they were granted remote work accommodation, says Janneke Parrish, who worked as an Austin-based program manager for Apple Maps at the time. “Not just because of the abortion ban, but also because of Texas’ anti-trans legislation.”
Parrish rallied her colleagues to submit questions to a company town hall meeting the following day. They asked Cook what Apple was doing to protect its employees. According to a recording obtained by The New York Times, Cook said that the company was looking into whether it could aid the legal fight and reassured staff about their insurance coverage.
Parrish circulated an open letter asking Apple to review its benefits to ensure they covered medical and surgical abortions and out-of-state travel. The letter, signed by more than 150 employees and posted in multiple Slack channels with thousands of members, also asked Apple to make a public statement denouncing the law.
Apple verified the authenticity of the September 16 memo and confirmed that its health insurance covers medical and surgical abortions. It would not comment on whether the company got involved in the legal fight. Like Google, Facebook, and other big tech companies, Apple employs a large subcontractor workforce. When asked if its subcontractors received the same reproductive benefits, Apple referred WIRED to its staffing firms, but would not say which ones it uses in Texas. Three firms that list Apple jobs in Texas—Apex Systems, WeLocalize, and CSS Corp—did not respond to questions about their benefits.
Parrish was later fired and believes it was because of her involvement in workplace organizing, which included her work on #AppleToo, a campaign to shed light on alleged employee discrimination and harassment. She filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. Parrish says her termination had a chilling effect on organizing, driving communications off of Slack. Apple declined to comment on her termination.
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One Apple employee on a Texas-based team, who has been working remotely in another state, says he has thought about quitting if he is forced to relocate to Texas when offices reopen. The employee and his partner have volunteered at abortion clinics, and the partner worries about potential future restrictions on her access to birth control.
The employee says he knows that he has it better than most. “I'm sitting here whining to you as a highly paid tech person about my partner not getting that coverage,” he says. “We have the funds, means, and privilege to be able to get it. What about the support staff for Apple that aren't covered by those policies?”
“If Apple were to speak up here, its voice would be huge,” says Parrish. She points to the company’s condemnation of laws discriminating against same-sex couples and transgender people. “To me, it’s unconscionable that it would stand up in other instances, but not for the women of Texas. It very much made us feel like second-class citizens at best.”
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